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Edith Cavell was shot at dawn by the German occupying army in Brussels on the 12th of October 1915. Her crime had been to smuggle allied soldiers, separated from their regiments, out of war-torn Belgium. In her fifty years of life she moved from the tranquillity of her childhood as a vicar’s daughter in rural Norfolk, to the constraints of being a governess to other women’s children, to fulfillment as a reforming hospital matron.
She was a pioneer nurse at a time when it was emerging as a trained profession, and not, as Florence Nightingale put it, ‘just a job of last resort for those too old, too weak, or too drunk to do anything else’. She trained at the Royal London, a flagship Victorian training hospital. In 1907 she was invited by a leading Belgian surgeon to go to Brussels as head matron of his hospital and set up a training school for nurses there. She introduced modern nursing practice into Belgium.
On the face of it she was the archetypal Victorian matron. ‘The dusting should be done by ten nurse’ she would say as she wiped her finger along the iron bedsteads. But behind her starchiness the motivation of her life was sublimely romantic. ‘The noble profession of nursing’ she told her probationers, would lead to ‘the widest social reform, the purest philanthropy, the finest humanity.’
The First World War interrupted her work. In August 1914 she watched as 50 thousand German soldiers marched into Brussels. After the battle at Mons, where the German army won, wounded allied soldiers, separated from their regiments, hid in woodland and ditches. If picked up by the Germans they were shot or sent to prisoner-of-war camps in Germany. A resistance network grew up to help them. In Brussels, Edith Cavell’s nursing school became a central safe house for them.
Her network was watched and rounded up. Of those arrested Edith Cavell was singled out for execution because she was English. She spent ten weeks in solitary confinement. The night before she died the English priest from the church where she had worshipped gave her communion. ‘I have no fear or shrinking’ she told him. ‘I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.’ He told her she would be remembered as a heroine and a martyr. ‘Don’t think of me like that,’ she said. ‘Think of me as a nurse who tried to do her duty.’ And she made the comment now engraved on her monument in Trafalgar Square: ‘I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.’
What prompted me to write about her was the idea of altruism, the concept of goodness. In two years of working on this book I have kept unswerving respect for her. ‘I told you devotion would bring its own reward’ she told her nurses. She was a true public servant. Her work was prompted by love. It is hard not to be moved by her story. Her character lit up the dark times through which she lived and our own times too. She became a subversive because of her unflinching moral view.
Souhami’s research is impressive, and seen throughout this powerfully gripping, elegantly written and astonishingly detailed book.
Sue Gaisford, Independent
Cavell is brought sympathetically to life in Diana Souhami’s wonderfully readable biography. Cavell regarded the relief of suffering as a vocation and set up the first Belgian training school for nurses. Although the book’s major emotional thrust deals with Cavell’s imprisonment and death, it is equally fascinating on hospital conditions and the establishment of nursing as a respectable profession for women.
A lifelong spinster with a strict moral code, Cavell is a far cry from the 21st-century idea of a liberated woman but she emerges here as truly inspirational.
Tina Jackson, Metro
Diana Souhami succeeds triumphantly in bringing the story of Edith Cavell to life, vividly evoking a culture of public duty and Christian self-sacrifice which we have altogether lost.
Jane Ridley, Literary Review
This is a first-class, thoroughly readable biography, providing in-depth detail and brilliant social history – whether it be of life in a 19th-century Norfold rectory or work in London’s East End or Brussels at the gruesome dawn of war. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a biography that so gripped and moved me.
David Edelsten, The Field